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Career Success as Easy as P.I.E.

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

As easy as pie? Hmm, that might be an over-statement. If career success were truly that easy, we might see more women in senior roles!

Beyond Our Control

There are lots of barriers out there, we know that. A fair few of them we can’t change in the short-to-medium term either, certainly not as individual women. I’m talking about barriers such as:

  • unconscious bias which makes it hard for all of us to see women as leaders or to judge women to be as competent in their work as men. The research is truly confronting and depressing;
  • more limited access to informal networks, sponsors and mentors than male colleagues. This is partly due to senior workers, who are mostly men, encouraging and mentoring new hires who remind them of themselves. Young women don’t trigger the same response;
  • biology, which can seem to pit a woman’s rapid career trajectory against the desire to have children before it’s “too late.”

But there are some barriers we can change, starting right now, and these are the ones that come from our own choices and behaviours.


This is a framework for career success that first popped up in Harvey Coleman’s 1996 book ‘Empowering Yourself’.  It always resonates in our workshops and seminars.

The acronym PIE stands for

  • P – Performance
  • I – Image
  • E – Exposure

Can you guess at the share each of them contributes to success? Coleman believes it’s 10% performance, 30% image and 60% exposure. That’s probably the inverse for how many women operate!

Let’s take each in turn and think about practical things you can do to ensure you get as much success as possible in each of them.


On-the-job performance is typically something women feel comfortable with. Our years at school have taught us that hard work and top grades get noticed and rewarded.  While that formula for success definitely doesn’t have the same power at work, there’s no doubt that delivering the goods is a necessary condition for promotion. Everyone who is promotable performs to a high standard.

But watch out for taking on the wrong tasks, the ones that eat up your time for little reward. There was a great line in ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom’:

Men do things that are high profile, rather than things that need doing. Women pick up so many low-level tasks they don’t have time for higher level tasks.

And that means learning to say no! We know that’s tough: women are socialised to be nurturers and helpers.  If the prospect scares you, try our practical tips on how to set boundaries and say no. explained in a later chapter: How to Say No and Why You Should.


Remember that many of the people with the power to agree to your promotion won’t know you and your performance in detail – yet they will have an image in their mind about you.  Your image is all about what you’re known for, what associations people have about you. For example, “Jane’s a safe pair of hands who can be relied on to deliver” or “Mary’s quickly becoming an expert in xyz.”

Like brand managers everywhere, you can’t control what people think but you can influence it. The first step is knowing what you want to be known for; then you can send consistent messages (read more about Personal Branding in the first of our books: Begin with Success).

You can also let them know about your good performance as part of building your image. Yes, we know, self-promotion is almost as scary as saying no! That’s why we’ve come up with 10 ways to promote yourself authentically (see next chapter: 10 Authentic Ways to Self Promote).

Oh – and we hate to say it, but dress is a part of image too. The greater freedom that women have in their professional dress is a definitely a double-edged sword. Always err on the side of caution.


This is simply being known.  We all gravitate to names we know – reflect on what you do when you open your local council voting papers and find forty or fifty names to choose from. It’s much easier to get into a decision-maker’s list of ‘possibles’ if they have heard your name, even if they can’t quite remember why, and as long as their somewhat vague associations of you are positive.

Sitting at your desk working on your P-for-performance isn’t going to cut it. Here’s how Maura O’Sullivan put it (she was shortlisted for Finance Lawyer of the Year 2012 in the US):

“When I first started out, I assumed that just being a good substantive lawyer was enough. I probably spent too much time at my desk doing good work and not enough time projecting confidence and developing relationships.  I thought my good work would speak for itself, but the importance of being active and visible was true back then and is increasingly important today.”

There’s definitely more than one way to be “active and visible” but a common one is networking. You’ll want to do it in an authentic way and in the right frame of mind – definitely not thinking it’s sleazy and all about sales. Again, we have some good advice on effective networking in Book1: Begin with Success.

Career Success

The themes we’ve touched on above are backed by research into what’s effective for women’s careers. We hope you’ll find some practical ideas that you can put into practice very soon, or at least try one or two out.

You can be sure of one thing: there is no Career Prince Charming about to ride by and rescue you. Your career success is in your own hands!

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